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A thin red line is all that stands between Canadians and the divisive, intolerant brand of conservativism that’s taken hold in the United States, has a firm foothold in the United Kingdom and threatens the principles that have girded liberal democracies worldwide since soon after the Second World War.
Donald Trump. Boris Johnson. Andrew Scheer?
They are birds of a feather, retiring Cumberland-Colchester Liberal MP Bill Casey told a mix of old and new Liberals gathered in Truro on Saturday to choose his successor as the party’s candidate and, they hope, Member of Parliament.
Their choice makes Cumberland-Colchester Nova Scotia’s most intriguing race in the fast-approaching fall federal election.
Liberals in the northern Nova Scotia riding didn’t flinch as they reached across what was once an ideological gulf and picked Lenore Zann, who has represented Truro-Bible Hill in the Nova Scotia legislature as a New Democrat since 2009.
Three years ago, Zann finished a strong second to Gary Burrill in the provincial NDP leadership race. But she resigned from the NDP caucus a few months ago to enter the contest for the Cumberland-Colchester Liberal nomination that she won on Saturday.
Zann’s journey from provincial New Democrat to federal Liberal is a path that Liberals hope will be well worn by election day. The party understands that to retain the government it needs to get the band back together. The band is that loose coalition of centre-left and farther left voters — many of them NDP supporters — who got behind Justin Trudeau and the Liberals in 2015 to ensure Stephen Harper’s Conservatives were sent packing.
Much has changed since 2015. Trudeau’s self-proclaimed feminism and new-style politics came into question during the protracted SNC-Lavalin affair that rocked his government all spring. Doubts about his environmental bona fides have arisen since his government bought the Trans Mountain Pipeline in an effort to get more Alberta oil to global markets.
But it was the more disconcerting changes that have occurred beyond Canada’s borders that Liberals in Truro were pointing to. They were talking about the lurch toward a mean-spirited, right-wing populism, heavily tainted by racism, where the truth fights for purchase against the irrational ravings of a demagogue.
These Liberals want voters to believe — as many of them believe — that the Conservative Party of Canada (CPC) is of that ilk, and the Liberal Party is that thin red line that stands between Canadians and a government more reflective of Trump’s America or Johnson’s Britain.
Their proposition seems preposterous when one considers Chris d’Entremont or Alfie MacLeod or Eddie Orrell, or other CPC candidates in Nova Scotia, who do not fit the harsh characterization.
It is less preposterous when one considers Michael Cooper, the CPC MP who quoted from the manifesto of the Christchurch, New Zealand mass murderer of Muslims, at prayer, during a parliamentary committee meeting where a Muslim Canadian was testifying about the dangers of hate speech.
As a political tactic, tarring the CPC with Donald Trump’s brush is a winner if it sticks. In fact, it’s such an obvious winner that the Conservatives have tried to do the same to Trudeau, by linking his conduct in the Lavalin controversy to Trump’s disregard for the law.
The Liberals need the fall election to boil down to a simple binary choice — Liberal or Conservative.
Vilifying the CPC isn’t expected, nor intended, to draw votes away from the Conservatives. It is intended to attract back those voters the Liberals have lost since 2015, by raising the spectre of an intolerant and intolerable Conservative government.
It’s a winning strategy if Canadians perceive it, not as a false choice, but as the only choice.
As for the Liberals chances in Cumberland-Colchester, they’re fighting from behind and know it, but they’re also sure that Zann gives them their best shot. As a New Democrat, she won traditionally Tory Truro in three successive elections, and history teaches that changing parties is no impediment to winning the federal riding.
Casey was first elected as a Progressive Conservative in 1988, but after the Tories’ merger with the Reform/Alliance, he broke with the CPC, and has won the riding both as an independent and as a Liberal.
Zann faces Conservative Scott Armstrong, who held the seat from 2009-15, during Bill Casey’s first retirement from active politics. Casey returned as a Liberal in 2015 and defeated Armstrong.
In accepting the Liberal nomination, Zann appealed for Liberal unity. “We all have the same goals here; respect for one another, respect for Mother Earth.”
Journalist and writer Jim Vibert has worked as a communications adviser to five Nova Scotia governments.